THE CONSERVATIVE Party would squeeze annual savings of at least £477m out of DEFRA if they are elected.

The figure was unveiled as part of a wider £35bn package of savings in Government spending that has been identified by a committee led by former Millenium Dome troubleshooter, David James.

A key recommendation of the James report is to dismantle the Over Thirty Month Scheme and outsource the work of the RPA, saving the taxpayer £210m every year.

Although OTMS payouts are already set to end, the Conservatives reckon they could do it more quickly, cutting funding to the scheme sooner than the Government.

And the cost of the Rural Payments Agency could be halved, the James report says, if its role is reduced to a simple funds transfer body for the single farm payment.

In 2003/04, the RPA cost the equivalent of 4% of the money it handled, but this could be reduced to 2% if a commercial payment handler were used, taking its 3,200 staff off the public payroll.

DEFRA would also attract the attention of the cost-cutters, focusing on core policy-making work and losing 1200 staff to save an estimated £52m each year.

Its agencies would shrug off other activities to focus on executing policy, allowing the Environment Agency to shed 1,286 staff and cut annual costs by £47m..

Mr James claims it would “reduce the degree of bureaucratic intrusiveness in enforcement of environmental controls in the countryside”.

The Food Standards Agency could also save £64m by abandoning its advertising and marketing work.

Further efficiencies from smarter buying and “questionable savings” could push the total saved up to an annual £894m.

A spokesman for the Labour Party pointed out that the government was already committed to efficiency savings at DEFRA and its agencies, and branded the opposition‘s proposals as “cuts”.